Nervous Conditions has been at the top of my reading list for many years. It made it to the number one slot when a friend of mine in Gambia, who loaned it, held it in front of me and said, “have you read this, yet”? The cover stared at me as I mentally ticked it off as, ‘just another book I have to read’. She said, “here’s your book back – please read it, you have to read it’ – so I did. Thank you Musufing!
Now having done so, I can’t even tell you the single or main element that makes this book so special. I enjoyed it because it is simply written, exposing many truths. Too many truths that I think we often want to ignore or acknowledge, as Africans, as women, as humans. These truths, issues and problems are both specifically African, and not. A discussion on eating disorders, especially in regards to young people on British television recently was screening in the background as I read, experiencing the struggle of one of the protagonists, Nyasha, as she slowly unravelled and lost control of her life, whilst attempting to control it, through eating a large meal, which her family demanded she do, then vomiting it out in secret. Imagine in 1960’s Africa how this was perceived? A disobedient, ungrateful girl who was regarded as ‘too English’ by her peers and extended family yet she was desperately trying to re-adjust herself, recognising that the Western influence in her life, was far from benefiting her, now that she had returned home. Can Nyasha recover from this? Tambu, her poor cousin, can see her deterioration, but is too scared to tell her family that something is desperately wrong with her cousin. She is conflicted by not wanting to be disrespectful to her elders, which could also lead to her being removed from the household now providing her with a ‘privileged’ education, especially Nyasha’s father Babamkuru, the most revered member of the family (except it is his wife’s money not his degrees that feed his extended family.) Yet no-one realises or wants to acknowledge that Maiguru is as educated as her husband, she is visible only as his pacifier and cook on the family homestead when they visit. Tambu does eventually stand up to him on an issue that she cannot reconcile though.
Fifteen years after this book was first published the issues that this family faces in ‘post Rhodesia’, are just as prevalent today. The role and place of women in (East) African society, class issues (generally, in Africa) is told honestly. Its rebellious and revolutionary without screaming and shouting it in your face.
Heralding education as a means to uplift families from poverty is no doubt, important but should not transcend everything else. Education that is supposed to bring us salvation, education that our parents save and slave, for can enslave us. It becomes a cruel overseer if not balanced with everyday life, and community based, education. ‘Westernised’ education and our traditional cultures can strip us of our freedom without also incorporating basic common sense, morals and values. This is what sat with me after my first reading.
Nervous Conditions is a book that I am going to recommend for struggling fiction writers to read; it is a lesson in how writing ‘what you know’ allows you to tell a story simply and effectively. It’s a study in effective characterisation; tension building, use of conflict, how to write a memorable opening and a strong closing without ending; how to incorporate issues that are at the same, local yet global… (everything those expensive creating writing courses and degrees attempt to make you do). Just read Nervous Conditions – one of the best fiction courses you can take, in barely 200 pages.